The Dome Patrol. Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Pat Swilling. Undoubtedly the greatest collection of linebacker talent to ever share a field at the NFL level. For six glorious seasons, they served as the heart and soul of a Saints defense that ranked among the very best in the league. Until 2010, they collectively served as our biggest bragging right as Saints fans. 23 years after bargaining chip Renaldo Turnbull rendered Swilling expendable in the frugal mind of Jim Finks, they remain a source of pride among elder Who Dats everywhere.
The foursome became teammates in 1986, Jim Mora's first season as head coach in New Orleans. To that point, LOLB Rickey Jackson, a sixth year veteran coming off of three straight Pro Bowl seasons under former head coach Bum Phillips, had been the lone constant in an ever-evolving corps of sporadic playmakers. Sam Mills, who had played for Mora's Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars in the now-defunct USFL, quickly became a starter at LILB, However, first year RILB Johnson and rookie ROLB Swilling wouldn't come into their own as starters until the following season. In 1986, they took a backseat to incumbent starters Alvin Toles, a first round draft pick the year prior, and James Haynes, a third year veteran.
1987 proved to be a remarkable season for the Black & Gold. Marred by a players' strike early on, they managed to reel off nine straight victories to close out the calendar year. This tripled the franchise's previous best winning streak, while earning them their first ever winning season, as well as their first ever playoff berth. Of course, that all came crashing down in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, when the Vikings pounded them into oblivion, 44-10.
Despite the disappointing ending, it marked a major turning point in the history of the franchise. It was the first of three straight winning seasons, which remains a franchise record (since tied in 2009-2011), as well as the first of seven straight non-losing seasons. Aside from the 1993 absence of Swilling, this unprecedented (and unmatched) streak of non-losing play encapsulated the history of the unit.
As Saints fans, we're probably all well aware of most of what has already been covered. These four studs were lights out as a collective. It also doesn't hurt that they were playing behind some of the best defensive linemen in the history of the franchise – e.g., Wayne Martin, Jim Wilks, Frank Warren and Bruce Clark – for most, if not all of that stretch. But just how great were they individually? As in the big picture: their standing among the greatest NFL linebackers of all-time. It's a subject I have yet to see covered in depth here at CSC. So, let's delve into it a little deeper, shall we?
First, I think it's important to point out that none of these four players wound up playing their entire career with the New Orleans Saints. That said, in order to fairly gauge their worth as NFL players, we must take the remainder of their playing days into account. I'm going to start by giving you a little more background on each player, then compare them to other NFL greats – albeit from various eras – using a weighted statistic known as Approximate Value (AV). Now, I'm not entirely familiar with what goes into the actual grading of players at each position, but what I can tell you is that AV is a number assigned to players, based on how well they stacked up to their position peers in any given season.
Unfortunately, there are some drawbacks to this methodology. The most obvious one is that great players whose careers are cut short (for whatever reason) inevitably don't accrue the same number of annual AVs over the course of their NFL tenure. Another is the lack of official individual sack totals from any season prior to 1982, which can greatly skew the AVs of older players at this position in particular. Prior to that, sacks were considered a team defensive statistic, so they're obviously not included in whatever criteria is being used to rank linebackers from 1920 to 1981.
General tackle documentation is even spottier, as there's no clear cut indication of when (or even if) they're being taken into account from year to year. Further, there are no AVs calculated prior to 1960 – presumably due to a lack of defensive statistics in general – so, unless a linebacker is either already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, or their career lapses over into the 1960s, we pretty much have to rely on written articles, word of mouth and/or memory (depending on how old you are), as far as gauging greatness goes.
Lastly, any NFL player whose playing career detoured into other professional leagues (with the exception of the AFL) is at a disadvantage, at least as far as this exercise goes, since AV tallies are limited to NFL seasons, where as Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration tends to extend beyond that (or so we're led to believe by the organization's ambiguous moniker). Unfortunately, this would exclude Mills's and Johnson's three and two year stints in the USFL; i.e., years that they could have conceivably been padding their career AVs. In short, it's far from scientific. But it's the best we have and it removes personal biases from the equation, so I'm rolling with it.
The "City Champ", as he was affectionately known during his playing days with the Saints, was largely overshadowed at the University of Pittsburgh by fellow OLB Hugh Green. Green, as you may remember, was selected 7th overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Even he was the 3rd linebacker selected in the 1981 NFL Draft; a class which also featured Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor (2nd overall) and Mike Singletary (38th). Jackson (51st) was the second of two 2nd round selections by the Saints, following Nebraska SS Russell Gary (29th). He started all 16 games as a rookie, a year in which individual sack totals were not recognized. Over the next 12 seasons, he would collect 115 as a Saint, 32.5 more than Wayne Martin, the next closest in franchise history. He spent his last two NFL seasons playing defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers, earning a Super Bowl ring in his first season after leaving the Saints. His 128 career sacks is the 15th most in NFL history, while his 29 fumble recoveries is the most ever by any linebacker and tied for 3rd most among all defensive players.
Jackson has a career AV of 160, which is the fifth most of all NFL linebackers. Among players currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he ranks fourth and I'll cover that disparity in ranking shortly:
2. Derrick Brooks (1995-2008) - 194
3. Junior Seau (1990-2009) - 191
4. Lawrence Taylor (1981-1993) - 182*
5. Rickey Jackson (1981-1995) - 160*
Jackson is the only member of the Dome Patrol currently enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and, while I have no hard numbers to support this, he is believed to love his hometown more than Sean Payton loves prescription painkillers. We now turn our attention to the member with the 2nd highest career AV of the four.
The diminutive Mills hailed from Montclair State, a relatively large university in northeast New Jersey, in terms of student population, yet practically unheard of, as far as their athletic program goes. Something you may not know is that Mills graduated from college in 1981, making him eligible for the same NFL Draft that produced Rickey Jackson. Though he wasn't selected, he was signed by the Cleveland Browns as an UDFA and attended training camp that summer. He was cut by head coach Sam Rutigliano, primarily due to his size, which was viewed as too small for the position. Mills then tried out for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL, but did not make the team. After short stints as a photography teacher and assistant football coach at East Orange (NJ) High School, he tried out for the USFL's Philadelphia Stars. He became known around the league for his tenacity on the field and his leadership off it. His 5'9" 230 lb frame and speed earned him the nickname "Field Mouse". He helped lead the Stars to two USFL championships and was named to three All-USFL teams. He is generally considered to be one of the best defensive player in the short history of the league; 2nd only to Memphis Showboat DE Reggie White.
Despite this, he went undrafted in the 1984 NFL Supplemental Draft, as did former Michigan Panther and Oakland Invader QB Bobby Hebert. Both players were signed to free agent contracts, thanks to the persistence of Mills's former Stars' head coach, Jim Mora. As a Saint, Mills would become a fan favorite for all the same reasons he was so popular in the summer league. He was a true jackhammer, particularly in short yardage situations, when he would often stop opposing runners dead in their tracks. He also excelled in covering the flat, defending screen passes, and matched up surprising well against opposing tight ends, most of which towered above him. It was ultimately his speed, agility and proficiency in this sideline-to-sideline "rover" role that allowed Saints defensive coordinator Steve Sidwell to dial up blitzes from both the strong and weak sides (concurrently) more regularly. In that sense, Rickey Jackson may not be in Canton today, if it wasn't for Mills, as his sack total would have inevitably dropped off, had he been saddled with those full time "Sam" responsibilities throughout the Mora era.
Mills remained with the Saints through the 1994 season; a year longer than Jackson and Johnson and two years longer than Swilling. In 1995, Mills was offered a two year, $2.8M contract with the expansion Carolina Panthers. Though Saints' general manager Jim Finks elected to match the offer, Mills became miffed that it had taken the Panthers' offer to force his hand and vindictively signed with Carolina anyway. Over the next three seasons, he would start all 50 games for the Panthers. In 1996, he helped them reach the NFC Championship Game and was named 1st Team All-Pro for the first and only time in his career.
After retiring from football as a player, Mills got back into coaching. He was ultimately promoted to linebackers coach with the Panthers. In 2003, he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. He continued to coach while battling the disease and became an inspiration to the team during their post-season run to Super Bowl XXXVIII. His plea to "Keep Pounding" is still used as the team's battle cry to this day. In 2005, Mills died at his home in Charlotte NC. He was 45 years old. A statue stands outside of Bank of America Stadium in his honor.
Mills has a career AV of 126, which ties him with former Redskins great Chris Hanburger for the 20th highest among all linebackers. Let's take a peek at the eight Hall of Fame linebackers that fall somewhere between Jackson and Mills:
As you can see, most of these players are affected (to varying degrees) by a lack of sack credit throughout their careers. Nick Buoniconti and Bobby Bell fall outside of the 1980s entirely, while Jack Ham and Ted Hendricks barely nip the magic 1982 season, as far as full statistical credit is concerned. Conversely, Mike Singletary is affected no more than Taylor and Jackson were in the earlier summary, losing only his rookie season. Interestingly, the only linebacker in this group completely unaffected by the shortcoming is Derrick Thomas and he had his NFL career cut short in a tragic automobile accident. So, plenty of handicapping across the board.
Regardless, we can safely assume that Mills is at least in the conversation, among players worthy of induction. Unfortunately, he isn't the only one. Here are eight linebackers with a better case for enshrinement:
That's actually nine, as I've included Mills for illustrative purposes. Ray Lewis has the highest AV of any linebacker. He and Urlacher are locks in my mind; possibly both as soon as 2018, when they first become eligible. Clay Matthews is a little better than his AV would indicate, again due to missing sack totals early on in his career. Isiah Robertson is more than 25 years removed from his retirement, which means he's fallen into the black hole governed by the senior committee. With 11 of his 12 years played outside of the Sack Age, he seems like as big a slight as any at the position.
Yet, if it's truly the PRO FOOTBALL Hall of Fame, couldn't a very strong case be made for Mills, as well? I have my doubts, when it comes to that angle. While the Canton museum does, in fact, have areas dedicated to other professional football leagues, Herschel Walker has yet to appear as a finalist. If you include Walker's statistics as a New Jersey General, he's one of only four pro football players with 20,000+ yards from scrimmage. Further, at the time of his retirement in 1997, he ranked 2nd all time in that department, behind only Walter Payton. This isn't me lobbying for Herschel Walker's inclusion in Canton. This is me saying Sam Mills probably didn't earn any brownie points with panelists by being a highly productive player in the now-defunct USFL.
He does, however, have the whole 5'9" underdog story going for him, as well as public sympathy based on dying young. Does all of that add up to enshrinement sooner than Hardy Nickerson, to keep it realistic? That's tough to say. Ken Stabler recently died and all of a sudden he's in. Don Coryell did too and there seems to be no sense of urgency there, what with a living Tony Dungy leapfrogging him. No matter. We, as Saints fans, know he's at least worthy of the honor, based on who's already sporting a gold jacket.
Selected in the 3rd round of the 1986 NFL draft (60th overall), Georgia Tech's Pat Swilling came into his own as a weak side pass rusher during the 1987 season. As a full time starter in New Orleans, he failed to reach a double digit sack total for the season just once (1988) and exceeded the one sack per game threshold twice. A terror behind the line of scrimmage, Swilling forced 27 turnovers as a Saint, including 24 forced fumbles. With Jackson recovering nearly half of those, he too could be considered a contributing factor that led to the unveiling of Rickey's bronze bust in 2010. Swilling was named to the Pro Bowl four consecutive years and earned 1st Team All-Pro honors in 1991 and 1992.
In 1992, the Detroit Lions attempted to sign Swilling as a restricted free agent, but the Saints matched the deal that was offered, which included a no-trade clause. A year later, fearing that Swilling would elect to walk, if allowed to play out his contract year, Saints general manager Jim Finks elected to sell high and traded him to Detroit for a 1st and a 4th round pick. In addition to his 1993 base salary, Detroit was forced to pay $1.4M in order to void the clause that they themselves had written into his contract! To make matters worse for Detroit, Swilling failed to live up to expectations, which were probably unrealistic to begin with, given his supporting cast in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Saints scored a 1st and a 4th round draft pick, which they used to select Louisiana Tech OT Willie Roaf, who has since been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Fresno State's Lorenzo Neal, who is commonly considered one of the best blocking fullbacks of all time.
Swilling would later play defensive end for the Oakland Raiders and put up 13 sacks in his first season under head coach Mike White. By 1998, he was no longer starting, He officially retired from the NFL at the end of that season. He has since dabbled in both politics and real estate and still calls New Orleans his home. At the time of his retirement, Swilling's 107.5 career sacks ranked as the 5th most ever among players that primarily played linebacker. It remains the 23rd highest total since 1982, regardless of defensive position.
Pat Swilling has a career AV of 119, which ties him with former Giants great Harry Carson for 32nd highest among all linebackers.
That's nine more, knocking Swilling down to 19th on the waiting list. Keep in mind, this is only linebackers we're talking about. Two of these might make the cut in any given year, tops. So, you're looking at another good decade or so. Which likely throws him into the aforementioned senior committee realm, if I had to guess. Of note here is Cowboys LB Chuck Howley, who was the only Super Bowl MVP from a losing team. Howley was a rookie the same year Nitschke was, played a year longer and actually has a (slightly) higher AV, yet Nitschke is in and Howley isn't. Not like anyone is overrating team accomplishments, right? Getting back on topic, Swilling belongs ... but he better grab a Snickers.
Johnson's path to NFL glory differs from Mills's path, albeit in subtle ways. Upon graduating from North Carolina State, Johnson elected to sign with the Jacksonville Bulls of the USFL. This rendered him ineligible for the 1984 NFL Draft. However, the league decided to hold a supplemental draft in June of that year. Having not yet played a down in the USFL, Johnson's NFL rights were secured by the New Orleans Saints, who selected him 15th overall. After two productive seasons with the Bulls, he joined the Saints in 1986. By the following season, he had supplanted Alvin Toles, the team's first round draft choice in 1985, at RILB. As a full time starter, Johnson developed a reputation as a punishing hitter. He excelled at filling the inside gaps and became even more of a disruptive presence, as opposing team's began double teaming Swilling on the weak side.
Quarterbacks and running backs were soon ducking out of bounds just past the sticks, in order to avoid getting pulverized by the heat seeking missile sporting a #53 jersey. Particularly memorable were the two chess match games of 1992, in which Johnson drew the daunting assignment of being Steve Young's shadow all game. Though Young still managed to gain nearly 8 yards per carry, Johnson's dogged persistence appeared to rattle Young, resulting in several ill-advised passes that killed drives and kept the games close. The highly explosive 49ers prevailed in both contests, albeit by a meager 7 points combined. From 1989 to 1992, Johnson was named to the Pro Bowl four consecutive times. In 1992, the entire Dome Patrol made the cut, marking the first and only time in league history that a single team has been represented by four linebackers in Honolulu.
Following the Saints' fourth straight first round playoff exit under Jim Mora, Johnson was released, along with Rickey Jackson. In 1994, he was signed by Philadelphia Eagles. He struggled mightily in the 4-3 and failed to beat out incumbent Byron Evans at MLB. Johnson played in just four games for the Eagles, recording five tackles, before finishing his career on injured reserve.
Vaughan Johnson has a career AV of 69, all of which were accrued as a Saint. Objectively speaking, that isn't a blip on the "statistically unaffected" Canton radar. Here's a quick look at the remainder of those Canton legends, many of which are sorely lacking in AV points, due to playing before 1982 and, to an even greater extent, before 1960:
41T. Andre Tippett (1982-1993) - 109
45. Willie Lanier (1967-1977) - 108*
As you can see, he would fall somewhere between Sam Huff and Bill George, who are bearing the brunt of 4 and 8 years of lost AV accumulation respectively. Further, Johnson only played nine seasons of NFL football. The only two you might be able to argue as less deserving than Johnson (in order to render Johnson deserving) is Les Richter (19 over 3 seasons prorates to 57 over 8) and George Connor (nothing to prorate over 8 seasons). Even then, you're talking about no sack inclusion for either player. And sack numbers were likely astronomical back then, due to a plethora of dual purpose players, a la Charley Trippi (he was simply one of the best at it; far from a novelty act).
To close this out, here's one last list of guys on the outside looking in with AVs greater than or equal to Andre Tippett, the least deserving of the "statistically unaffected" Hall of Fame linebackers, at least based on AV.
Johnson would have to be argued over all of these guys, as well. And some of them are handcuffed, as you can see. Not to mention any other non-Hall of Fame linebacker that falls somewhere between a 108 and a 70 career AV inclusively. I'm sure there are oodles of those. Sorry Vaughan, but if it's a gold jacket you seek, I highly recommend heading on over to the Men's Wearhouse. You're going to like the way you look. I gar-on-tee it.
Ok, less Justin Wilson, more George Zimmer this time. 4,000 word Dome Patrol essay finale, take 2.
You're going to like the way you look. I guarantee it.
.... annnnd that a wrap.